By Bobby Jordan
Highly trained security personnel who have battled rhino poachers and insurgents in Iraq are being deployed to protect abalone off the Eastern Cape coast.
The private security team, whose members are mostly former soldiers, have already pounced on several abalone poachers in and around Port Elizabeth, which is where they have been tasked with protecting a 28km stretch of coast.
Their presence signals a new public-private approach to the scourge of abalone poaching, which costs South Africa about R1-billion a year.
"All my staff are ex-military guys, including guys who have been in Iraq for a couple of years," said Ian Milne, who runs the security firm Tactical Task Force. "We use tracking skills and have a very good success rate."
The team was contracted by a private company that has the rights for abalone ranching along a section of that coast.
It is one of three private concessions in Eastern Cape and one of eight countrywide.
The two Eastern Cape concessionaires, Ulwandle and Lidomix, have partnered with both Rhodes University and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University to assess whether ranching will be viable, and the area has been seeded with juvenile abalone.
South African abalone is almost entirely snapped up by the export market, mostly by buyers in the Far East. The product is exported live, canned or dried.
Rhodes University project leader Peter Britz said private security was crucial to the success of the programme.
"There is no way the state can put enough men on the ground and be there 24 hours a day. But the exclusive ranching concession incentivises [this\ investment."